Restaurant chefs are like every other parent when it comes to wanting to give their children specially prepared, tasty and healthy school-box lunches. But they have an advantage because of their professional background and access to a variety of foods, and can almost pull off anything when it comes to pleasing their child’s palate.
Here’s how they think outside the box for the back-to-school days.
Sonja Finn, chef and owner of Dinette in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty, does not favor sugared foods for her 3-year-old son, Miles, but insists on some sort of fruit.
What she packs: A pasta with walnut-basil pesto. Occasionally baked spinach rice, which she makes with basmati rice, onion, spinach and vegetable or chicken stock; or a roasted chicken breast; or some version of a peanut butter sandwich made with no-sugar peanut butter and low-sugar wheat bread. A banana is a must, and so is some sort of cut-fruit like watermelon, strawberries or apricots. Miles’ favorite is matzo balls made by his nana.
Her prep technique: “I make pesto ahead of time and keep it in the freezer. On Sunday night, I cook a pound of pasta and then add the frozen pesto to the hot pasta. I keep stirring until the pesto melts completely, coating the pasta and at the same time cooling it. That way I don’t need to wait for it to cool to pack it away (waiting isn’t an option anyway since it’s already midnight by the time I get around to making the school lunch). I can immediately pack it into individually covered containers and put it in the fridge, and I’m set for the week.” Frozen walnuts will ensure that the pesto will be green, she says.
What she won’t pack: “No juice boxes and no yogurt shooters.”
From Dinette’s menu: Dinette doesn’t have a lunch menu, and so sometimes Miles gets a slice of cheese pizza that was made the night before. “A lot of Miles’ lunches are prepared at Dinette.”
Her school lunch: “I didn’t take lunch from home. I did school lunch the whole time.”
Changes in lunch-box fare: “The convenience foods and prepackaged foods have gotten worse. There is more sugar, more salt and the sizes have gotten bigger.”
Bill Fuller is the corporate chef at Big Burrito. He has an 11- and 14-year-old and packs their lunches every day.
What he packs: “Either a sandwich, milk (I pack the milk with a small ice pack together in a baggie because my kids hate warm milk), fruit and snack (crackers, chips, etc.) or a thermos of soup or leftovers instead of the sandwich. Occasionally two slices of leftover pizza in place of the thermos of soup/sandwich. If they are sweet, I’ll drop a piece of leftover Halloween candy or some cookies in there.”
What he won’t pack: “Nothing that won’t be temperature safe through the course of the day. Not very many sweets. Never soda.”
From Casbah’s menu: “I always sent leftover pastas from Casbah (his restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside), especially the Ricotta Cavatelli. Both my kids devour that.”
His school lunch: “We rarely packed lunches but when we did it was a sandwich, chips/snack, fruit. We usually ate school lunch because my grandmother cooked in the cafeteria. In those days, they actually cooked, so it was my grandmother cooking for us every day in grade school. Also, we got free or reduced lunches throughout school too, and that was hard to pass up.”
His lunch box: I had an “Adam-12” box when I was a little kid. Also a Spider-Man one, I think. I remember the “Adam-12” one best because I hit Eddie Krauch in the face with it once and got in trouble. We were friends, mostly, but got in a fight that day.
Changes in the lunch-box fare: Not much in my world. I guess I can afford fresh fruit and my mother couldn’t. A lot of kids bring pre-packaged stuff. My older kid likes to take Ramen noodles occasionally since the middle school cafeteria has a microwave. We never had a microwave!
Ling Robinson, executive chef and owner of Asiatique Thai Bistro in Larimer’s Bakery Square, who has four children and two grandchildren, says it’s important to prepare a different lunch every day for children as they will remember it. “It’s a gift from childhood that creates special memories of how much their mother or father loved them,” she says.
What she will pack: “Fresh, healthy, non-processed food. I always include a protein, fruit and vegetable. I grill chicken or beef or salmon, steam vegetables, thinly slice apples, cut up some carrots, and put it all together in one container with a light dressing using olive oil. For my older boys, who require more calories, I would make a sandwich containing salmon, beef or chicken.”
What she won’t pack: “Chips, soft drinks or prepackaged meats.”
From Asiatique’s menu: “I would pack foods such as our Summer Roll, which is quick and easy to make, and contains fresh leaf lettuce, cilantro, mint, avocado, tomato and tapioca skin.” She wraps it with chicken or salmon and rice noodles.
Her school lunch: “Growing up in Thailand, I would take rice with mixed vegetables and seafood.” She says she was fortunate because her parents insisted on those foods along with fruit. “All kinds of fruits.”
Her lunch box: “My lunch box was a vertical stack of containers — the bottom one had rice, the middle one had steamed vegetables and the top held fresh fruit. I also carried one metal spoon — no plastic spoons. If you had brothers and sisters at the same school, you also carried their lunches in your lunch box. You just added more containers to your stack. It was usually the older child who had to carry it to school.”
Changes in the lunch-box fare: “Back then, our lunch boxes featured these three different compartments for three food groups. It was easy to open and was safe and secure. Today, everything is taken in Ziploc bags, which are sometimes not so easy for the children to open without spilling on themselves. Also, it’s all about processed fruits and puddings in plastic containers. I do use the safe plastic box containers that are easier to open. My boys and grandchildren would have a hard time carrying the stacked lunch boxes today, so it’s the next best thing.”
CHICKEN SUMMER ROLL
It is quick and easy to make.
1 to 2 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast
1/2 ounce olive oil
1 tapioca skin
1 ounce baby spinach
1 ounce brown rice
2 sprigs cilantro
1 ounce shredded carrots
2 slices of cucumber
Thinly slice meat. Wash in salt water; thoroughly rinse.
Pour olive oil in nonstick pan and saute chicken on both sides until done. Let cool; side slice the meat and keep ready for use in summer roll.
Wet tapioca skin and lay flat on clean surface.
Spread spinach on top of tapioca skin. Then top with brown rice, cilantro, carrots, cucumber and sliced chicken.
Tightly roll up tapioca skin.
Slice roll to desired thickness.
Makes approximately 5 pieces.
FRESH RICOTTA CAVATELLI WITH ITALIAN SAUSAGE, RAPINI AND TOMATO
You could freeze the Ricotta Cavatelli before adding the sausage and tomatoes.
2 Ricotta Cavatelli (see recipe below)
1 / 4 cup olive oil, plus oil for pasta water
2 loose Italian sausages (spicy or mild)
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 / 2 bunch rapini, thinly sliced
1-2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (optional)
3 cups whole Italian canned plum tomatoes with juice
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1 / 2 cups fresh ricotta (room temperature)
Make Ricotta Cavatelli.
In a 4-quart pot, add salt and oil to water. Bring water to boil before cooking sausage.
Heat a large skillet and add olive oil. Crumble sausage into oil and let it brown, breaking up large chunks with a spatula.
When sausage is browned, add garlic and rapini. Add red pepper flakes, if desired. Stir until rapini is tender.
Roughly crush tomatoes with your hands and add with juice to rapini-sausage mixture.
Put cavatelli in boiling water. Let cook until it floats and then just a minute more.
Strain pasta and add to sausage mixture. Add fresh oregano and toss together. Add seasonings.
Place in a large, shallow pasta bowl. Arrange dabs of ricotta across the surface.
For Ricotta Cavatelli
1 pound Lamagna ricotta
4 cups all-purpose flour
Combine ricotta and eggs in mixer fitted with dough hook. Mix well.
Add flour; mix for about 5 minutes. If dough is sticky, add a little more flour and mix again.
Place dough onto counter. Wrap in plastic and allow to rest at least 30 minutes.
Roll dough out to 1 / 2-inch thick. Then cut into 3 / 4-inch strips.
Roll through cavatelli maker onto lightly floured tray. Freeze extra pasta.
Any pasta will work for this pesto, but the more fanciful the shape, the better. I recommend having the child pick it out.
1 1 / 2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 medium cloves garlic
2 1 / 2 ounces frozen walnuts
6 ounces basil leaves
3 / 4 teaspoon salt
1 / 2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 pound pasta, cooked
In a food processor, pulse cheese, garlic, walnuts, basil, salt and 1 / 4 cup olive oil until a little chunky. Scrape down sides.
Then running the processor, drizzle in the rest of the oil.
If making ahead of time, pack into a plastic bag or container and freeze.
Add pesto to cooked pasta.
Makes approximately 1 cup.